Galley Gossip: In-flight emergencies – what are the odds?

Standing at row 33 behind the beverage cart, I handed a passenger a Diet Coke with extra lime. That’s when another passenger came racing up behind me and yelled, “There’s a fire in the bathroom!”

A fire on the airplane is one of my biggest fears as a flight attendant. Only because I’m quite familiar with how quickly a fire can get out of control. Once, years ago, I lit an Aveda travel candle and placed it on a shelf in the bathroom of my crash pad. As luck would have it, the Aveda candle was housed in a silver tin that got so hot it melted the plastic shelf. The candle dropped into a wicker basket full of tissue. Within seconds the flames climbed the walls and jumped onto the fluffy toilet seat cover. To make a long story short, I frantically fought the fire and eventually was able to put it out. I was lucky that day.

I looked up the aisle at the lavatory the passenger was now pointing at, and though I couldn’t see any smoke, I turned to my colleague and said, “Call the Captain. I’ll be right back.”

Did I happen to mention that FAA was on board scrutinizing our every move?

My heart raced as I walked up the aisle. I had barely cracked the accordion door open when I heard passengers coughing loudly throughout the cabin. Smoke began billowing out of the trash receptacle. A cigarette, I guessed.

“I can’t breath!” I heard several passengers scream.

Quickly I shut the door, opened an overhead bin, grabbed a bottle of halon, pulled out the pin, and pushed the lavatory door back open. Pointing the hose at the fire, I pressed the lever and sprayed. I also prayed. Two seconds later a colleague handed me another bottle of halon. When that was empty, another tank was placed in my hands. The smoke grew thicker and thicker as the coughing got louder and louder. A giant hazmat-looking-hood that covers the entire head and provides oxygen while fighting fires was thrust upon me.

While I continued fighting the fire, my colleagues moved passengers and oxygen bottles away from the lavatory. Because the flight was full, passengers were doubled up. Then my colleagues passed out wet towels and instructed passengers to use them to cover their mouths.

As soon as the fire was extinguished, the Captain’s voice boomed, “Flight attendants, prepare for landing!”

Frantically we threw everything into the carts and locked it all in place. It was then we took our jumpseats and tried to catch our breath.

“Very good!” our instructors called out.

The FAA guy didn’t respond. He just sat there taking notes.

“Now grab your manuals and let’s go over what just happened,” an instructor said. And that’s what we did. We all grabbed our in-flight crew manuals and discussed what had happened and what we could have done better.

The above scenario took place in a controlled environment during my flight attendant recurrent training session. (Click the link to read what happened last year) It was also a re-enactment of what actually took place on a flight earlier this year. Each year flight attendants are required to go through hours of intensive hands on training, practicing everything from CPR to what we should do in case of a terrorist attack, and each year I leave the training facility feeling prepared for just about anything.

Whenever I write a post centering around customer service or flight safety, it never fails, there’s always someone quick to point out how rare it is that an in-flight emergency will occur. And that’s alway following by how bad customer service is today and how flight attendants should be replaced with vending machines – vending machines! I kid you not.

Besides having a very large woman pass out on top of me in the middle of the aisle, a man traveling from an international destination vomit all over my crew bag – and uniform blazer, a woman go unconscious not once, but twice, during a meal service, and wing flaps that wouldn’t go up one occasion, or down on another, resulting in the aircraft being met by dozens of emergency vehicles on the ground while I sat in my jumpseat ready to pop a slide and command an evacuation at any moment, not much has happened during my fourteen years of flying. The one and only time I had a serious medical emergency (a woman had a heart attack) two of my crew members happened to be qualified nurses and in business class traveled a group of doctors on their way to a medical convention. Like I mentioned above, I’ve been really lucky.

So what are the odds that an in-flight emergency will occur on one of your flights? I don’t know. What I do know is that I was surprised to meet several flight attendants at recurrent training this year who had, in fact, experienced several emergencies – each!

After fighting the fire, I found myself practicing CPR on the floor with a flight attendant I’d never met before. He was in charge of the AED, which meant he was the one delivering the electrical shock when advised. “Have you ever had to do this in real life?” I asked as I pulled off a pair of plastic gloves and placed a pocket mask in a box being passed around the room.

“Twice,” he said as he got to his feet and helped me up.

“Twice?” I repeated. “Are you serious?” I could tell by the look on his face it had greatly affected him.

The next class involved going through a planned emergency. A planned emergency happens when flight attendants are alerted in flight by the cockpit that an emergency landing will take place. Flight attendants will then go through a planned emergency check list step by step until all tasks have been completed. Remember the miraculous Hudson River landing? That was a planned emergency landing.

As we sat on the mock airplane waiting for the instructors to announce the names of the “working crew” I sighed. The stress was getting to me. “Thank god I’ve never had to do this in real life,” I mumbled to the guy sitting beside me.

“Oh I’ve had four planned emergencies and one unplanned emergency.”

I just looked at him. Then I said, “No offense, but I hope I never have to fly with you!”

“Why?” he asked, still smiling. “I’m lucky!” That’s when I realized he was lucky, very lucky indeed!
Then he added, “During one of the planned emergencies I worked with a flight attendant who had brought along his 8 year-old son. Can you imagine? What are the odds that the day you bring your child on a flight you’re working is the day an engine catches on fire and you have to make an emergency landing?”

Just then an instructor called my seatmate’s name to play the lead flight attendant during the planned emergency landing we were about to re-enact, along with eight other names. Mine wasn’t one of them, thankfully. Even so, I shook my head as I sat in my seat, just like a real life passenger, and thought about the so-called odds and what it all meant. I mean what were the odds that the one guy in the room most qualified to handle a planned emergency landing would be called out to role-play the flight attendant in charge? What were the odds that my CPR partner would have had to actually perform it in flight on two seperate occassions? What are the odds of anything, really? And in the end, do the odds even matter?

Are you a flight attendant who has experienced an in-flight emergency? Share your story here!


Galley Gossip: The art of maintaining service (when service is the last thing on the mind)

Sitting on the jump-seat in the back of coach, working a flight from New York to Los Angeles aboard a 767, I turned to Stephanie, my coworker, and sighed. “I have to tell you, I was getting a little nervous there for a minute.”

“I know,” Stephanie laughed, even though she was not laughing an hour ago.

I should have known it was going to be one of those days when I spotted the flight attendant slipping her navy blue pantyhose feet into a cheap pair of white house shoes, the kind you snag from a nice hotel, just to go through security.

“Ma’am,” I said eyeing her Travelpro suitcase, not her funny feet, as I placed my own wheelie bag onto the moving conveyor belt, “Are those three large cobs of corn sticking out of the back of your rollaboard?”

“Yes,” she said matter of fact.

I laughed, attaching my tote-bag to my rolling bag, but she did not laugh back, as she slipped her feet into a pair of black leather heels, placing the house shoes inside the back pocket of her rollaboard next to the cobs of corn, and walked away.

Okay, that’s weird, I remember thinking, as I walked to flight operations. Little did I know, that was just the beginning of weird.

We were midway through the beverage service in coach when it hit me. I had just poured a cup of coffee when I smelled a strange smell. It was the kind of smell you do not want to smell, particularly in flight. Now this wasn’t that smell flight attendants often use coffee packets in the lavatory to disguise. Oh no, this was a burning smell. Maybe even a plastic burning smell. Or was it an electrical burning smell? I couldn’t tell. While I tried to figure it out, I handed a passenger a cup of water, no ice, and looked across the cart at Stephanie who had three cups of orange juice in one hand.

“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked the next passenger, not making eye contact, as I still stood staring at Stephanie, who would not look at me no matter how long I stared at her.

I cleared my throat, but she did not look, so I glanced across the aisle at Ben, another coworker, who had just handed a passenger a breakfast sandwich. Too busy counting a wad of cash, Ben did not notice me either. As for his partner on the other side of the cart, she was bent over a passenger plugging in a set of headphones into the armrest. Just business as usual flying across the country, except for that strange scent in the cabin that only I seemed to smell.

I’ll admit that after having recently attended recurrent training, where flight attendants go to review everything from security procedures to CPR, I was a tad bit sensitive when it came to things that were…well…out of the ordinary, even just slightly out of the ordinary things, which I have to think is a normal reaction for most flight attendants after going through two stressful days of torture at the training facility each year. I mean I’m sure that’s why we go through recurrent training in the first place, so that we don’t become desensitized to all the different things we experience out on the line, so that we don’t become complacent and ignore the things that should not be ignored, no matter how trivial they may seem, or smell, at first. However some of us may have a tendency to become a wee bit paranoid , like me, after being bombarded with all those what-if scenarios, especially the fire fighting scenarios, at training.

As I continued to stare at Stephanie, I popped open a can of cranberry juice. Finally she met my gaze. I opened my eyes wide, cocked my head, and mouthed, Smell that? I could see her nose at work as she sniffed the air. She made a face and nodded in agreement. Together we glanced across the aisle at Ben, who was now looking at us curiously.

What, Ben mouthed at me, while placing a can of apple juice on a passenger’s tray table.

I tapped my nose three times, and then handed a passenger a napkin and a glass of ice. Ben nodded. I gulped. It was getting stronger.

“I’m going to call the cockpit,” I told Stephanie.

On my way to the back of the cabin, a call light rang. I stopped, turned off the orange light, and asked the man with the messy hair and the blue eye mask wrapped around his neck, “Need something?”

“There’s a strange smell in the cabin,” said the man with a British accent, rubbing his blinking eyes.

“Yeah, I smell it, too,” mumbled a woman, his seatmate, who had, until that moment, also been sleeping.

I rang the pilots in the cockpit, along with the flight attendant working in first class, and watched as Ben and Stephanie professionally maintained the beverage service in main cabin. After going over the details involving the smell – the type of smell, the strength of the smell, the location of the smell, the passengers seated near the smell, how long I’d smelled the smell, etc – I asked the purser, “Can you come back here and check it out?”

Two seconds later the purser, a no nonsense kind of woman, a take charge kind of person, the kind of flight attendant you want working with you whenever there’s a problem on-board a flight, came strolling down the aisle. She leaned over Stephanie and whispered, “I smell it. The cockpit wants you to feel the floor to see if it’s hot.”

I gulped. “Okay.”

Now if I hadn’t recently gone to recurrent training just a few months ago, and had not seen the video of the flight attendant who had fought a fire during flight, and the brilliant thing she had done prior to fighting the fire located under the floor boards of the airplane, I may have actually bent down on my hands and knees and touched that nasty carpet, which is something you probably don’t want to do when eyes are focused on you. Not when your main priority is to keep the passengers calm. Instead I slipped off my shoes, just like the flight attendant had done in the training video, and smiled as I walked down the aisle, very slowly, into the back galley where I grabbed a stack of plastic cups. Back to the cart I walked, very slowly, feeling the floor for heat. Of course the woman who had been sleeping next to the British man had seen me slip off my shoes, and was now looking at me exactly the way I imagined I had looked at the flight attendant with the corn cobs sticking out of her bag, like I was weird.

“That’s strange,” I heard her whisper to her seatmate, as I passed her row.

Back at the beverage cart, I slipped my shoes back on, simultaneously grabbing a couple packets of equal and a stir stick, handing them to the passenger I had last served, before asking Stephanie, “Can you pass the milk?”

As Stephanie handed me a small carton of fat free milk, I shook my head no, indicating that the floor was not hot. Thank god.

We clicked the brake and moved the cart three rows back, and while watching the purser communicating to the cockpit via inter-phone, I asked a passenger, “Care for something to drink?”

The purser hung up the phone and walked back to the cart, very slowly. With a puzzled look on her face, she handed Stephanie a stack of napkins and whispered, “I don’t smell it anymore.”

“Me neither,” Stephanie and I quietly said simultaneously.

And just like that the smell was gone (never to return again), the British man and his seatmate had fallen back to sleep, and the beverage service continued as normal. The rest of the flight, I’m happy to report, went without further incident. Thank god.

So the next time you find yourself trapped on a miserable flight, just remember that the flight attendant, that overpaid waitress in the sky who is taking entirely way too long to get to your row, isn’t just there to help you find a place to stow your luggage and serve you the beverage of your choice, even though it may appear to be so, she’s really there for your safety, and while she’s there, always monitoring the cabin at 35,000 feet, she’ll ask you if you’d like something to drink.

Galley Gossip: Barbie boot camp (recurrent flight attendant training)

“I feel sick,” I said to my mother, also a flight attendant, as we sped down the highway. Each mile brought us closer and closer to the training facility.

“Relax,” said my mother, a woman who does not know how to relax, especially when it comes to flight attendant training. Trust me. You should have heard her three months ago. “You’re going to do just fine.”

I always do just fine. I’ve had thirteen years of just fine. Even so, I still felt sick.

“Think you can slow down!” I exclaimed as I glanced at the speedometer. We were going way too fast! Okay fine, so we were only ten, maybe five, miles over the speed limit, but that’s too fast for a person who doesn’t want to be where they have to be any sooner than they have to be there.

Did I happen to mention I felt sick? It was that bad.

I don’t know what it is about recurrent training that makes me feel this way, but every month of August is spent dreading these two inevitable days. In fact, I don’t know a flight attendant out there who doesn’t get all worked up before entering the big building where it all began. Which makes me wonder, what the heck did they do to us during those initial seven and a half weeks of training thirteen years ago? Seriously.

My mother slowed the car and stopped beside a yellow curb. “‘You’re going to do great.”

I looked out the window at the the big building looming before us. “I don’t know about great,’ I said, and as I said this I could feel my heart beating, and my palms were sweating, as I kissed my sleeping son goodbye, grabbed my flight manual, and slowly walked up the stairs. One. Step. At. A. Time. Class didn’t start for another ten minutes, so there was no rush to get inside now was there?

When I walked through the double glass doors and stood in front of the giant swimming pool containing a bright yellow floating raft, a smiling training instructor greeted me by asking to see my three pound flight manual. She flipped through the pages, checking to see if thing was up to date, scratched my name off a long list, and then told me we’d be meeting in Room # 1.

“Up the stairs and down the hall,” the instructor said, still smiling, as she eyed another flight attendant walking through the glass doors.

I walked into the “Welcome to recurrent training” class and sat near the front of room (it was the only place left unoccupied), next to a very calm looking woman wearing spectacles and reading a paperback Grisham novel. Who can read at a time like this, I remember thinking to myself, as I looked around the room for someone, anyone, I knew, but I did not recognize a face. There were about forty of us in total. That’s when I heard the woman sitting directly behind me mumble, “I feel sick.”

Me, too!” I turned around to take a look at the woman who would become my new best friend for the next two days. There’s nothing like bonding over feelings of anxiety and stress.

“I used to know a girl who’d throw up right before training every year,” she added matter of fact.

The flight attendant reading the novel continued to read the novel (must have been a REALLY good book), as I turned all the way around in my plastic chair and introduced myself to Cynthia. Cynthia, like me, was a college graduate, only her major was in marketing, not psychology. Later on I would find out that Cynthia, like me, is also a writer, only she writes for a well known home and design magazine, not a blog.

Cynthia laughed as she said, “I never even got this worked up in college. Or with the magazine.”

“Tell me about it! My regular non-flying friends totally don’t understand.” Then I went on to tell her about my father, who, the night before, had the nerve to say half jokingly “What’s so stressful about making chocolate chip cookies?”

Chocolate chips cookies. He actually said that. My mother and I just glared at him and didn’t say a word.

“I’m joking!” said my dad, even though I’m not so sure he meant it.

The sad part is I’m pretty sure my father is not alone. I have a feeling a lot of people think all we do at “Barbie boot camp” is make chocolate chip cookies and serve drinks. Man oh man, I only wish it were that easy. Because if it were, I wouldn’t be freaking out now would I!

And so Cynthia and I began our two day “cookie making class” with a refresher course in fighting a fire at the fire pit by donning what looked like astronaut headgear and then we ended the day several exhausting hours later after evacuating passengers out window and door exits on six different aircraft, yelling and screaming our commands, popping open doors and inflating slides. Sorry, but I can’t tell you what, exactly, came in-between those two classes, but I can tell you it was intense, and at times stressful, and all of it highly classified, which involved airline safety and security. I can also tell you that Cynthia and I were more than happy when it finally came to an end. Together we left the training center, after exchanging email addresses, feeling relieved, yet confident and secure in the knowledge we had gained from our two days of training. Trust me when I tell you we, flight attendants, are prepared to handle just about anything. Even chocolate chip cookies.

In thirteen years of flying, I’ve only had a few medical emergencies on-board my flights, and thankfully each situation had a positive outcome. That’s because of the training the airline provided. So the next time you’re on a flight, crammed in the middle seat, take a look at the one working the drink cart in coach, or the one serving you freshly baked cookies and milk in first class, and remember they’re not just there to serve you, they’re actually there to save your life.